The notion of an exquisite young woman becoming emotionally and/or sexually fixated on a paunchy, balding, poorly dressed older man is one that has a certain special appeal for the average movie critic. This may have more than a little to do with why Red, the third film in Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Three Colors Trilogy," has received such raves. Anthony Lane of the New Yorker said it is "almost radioactive; objects and expressions are hot with meanings that you can't quite tease out and that resist the tedium of a symbolic reading."
Referring to Kieslowski's declaration that Red will be his last movie, Lane remarks that the film is "suffused with valediction, with something sharp and autumnal settling over the simplest action." The New Republic's old crab, Stanley Kauffman, though he expresses some reservations about Kieslowski in general, thought that Red's "quiet tensions, implied passions and hints of violence suggest Chabrol." Even syndicated columnist Donald Kaul, in an article that ran in the Arizona Republic last week, took a minute to complain about Red's failure to receive a bundle of Oscar nominations, even though Kieslowski was nominated, for Best Director.
Well, here's the thing--Red, like its predecessors, White and Blue, is really quite a well-done, watchable picture. But I wouldn't call it radioactive. And while I'd agree that you can't always tease out the film's meanings, I don't think Kieslowski gives you much of an alternative to the tedium of a symbolic reading.
And tedium it is.
Kieslowski, a French-based Pole who began as a documentarian, has some visual talent, no question. But when all the talk of quiet tensions and implied passions is done, that talent really boils down to a gift for showcasing stunningly chic European actresses in their 20s. In the "Three Colors" films, at least, Kieslowski seems less like a documentarian and more like a cover photographer for Vogue. The central character of Blue is a young widow played by Juliette Binoche. Julie Delpy is the star of White. Red stars the ravishing Irene Jacob, also the lead in The Double Life of Veronique, an earlier Kieslowski effort. Couch the boutique poses of such ladies in elliptical plots with terse, Pinteresque dialogue, arrange them into a trilogy with titles claiming lofty themes and presto! You've got masterpieces. As further critic bait, the second and third entries in the series involve relationships between one of these photogenic lovelies and a schlumpy guy. White concerns the scheme of a Polish hairdresser who repatriates to Poland from Paris to get revenge on Delpy, the ex-wife who left him destitute. Red is about the (platonic) intimacy that develops between a Swiss photographic model (Jacob) and a creepy, grizzled old judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who has, in his retirement, become a high-tech voyeur in the Geneva suburbs.
Jacob hits the judge's dog with her car, returns the injured animal to him, then takes it to the vet herself when she finds the old weirdo indifferent to its well-being. She finds him repulsive, but after a few more visits, the young woman, who's supposed to be desperately lonely in her boyfriend's absence (ha, ha, ha), bonds with the old judge. Eventually, we find out the guilty secret from the past that haunts him.
Study question No. 1: What was the deep, profound artistic reason for Kieslowski's decision to make the "listener" character a beautiful young model instead of, say, an overweight, 40ish plumber? Study question No. 2: Would the story have been any less powerful if he had?
Don't misunderstand--I'm not saying there's anything on Earth wrong with pointing one's camera at attractive people, or of appreciating the results. But it doesn't, by itself, make great cinema.
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All of this may sound less like criticism of a movie than like criticism of the criticism of a movie. Perhaps. But if the fashionable response to a movie is more provocative than the movie itself, that may suggest how little real feeling Kieslowski's films, for all of their elegance, finally generate. There's no denying that Kieslowski has a superb eye for composition, or that Piotr Sobocinski's sumptuous cinematography for Red, which, indeed, features the title color as a motif, is great to look at. The film is good to listen to, as well--Zbigniew Preisner's music has a potent gravity. Nor is the acting weak. It would be a shame if Jacob's status as a world-class beauty prevented notice that she's a perfectly competent actress, and Trintignant has a fine tacit mournfulness.
Blue, White and Red are a "trilogy," by the way, only in a rather broad sense of the word. In each of the films, some of the characters from one of the others are shooed through the background, and at the end of Red, there's a contrived device that links all three stories, though tenuously. The real linkage is supposed to be thematic. The titles refer to the colors of the French flag--blue for liberty, white for equality, red for fraternity.
Yet none of these themes is explored in any but the most abstract of social contexts. Blue is about a woman left at a cosmic loose end after the death of her husband and her child; her liberty is of the kind that Kris Kristofferson sang about--nothin' left to lose. White is about a man taking revenge on his ex--it's about equality only in the sense that it's about getting even. In Red, the fraternity between the characters is the device that allows the old man's cautionary story to be told. Kieslowski uses big themes and cover-girl faces as promiscuously as Russ Meyer uses breasts.